Each year, millions of Chinese students go abroad to study and live. The number of Chinese international students in the U.S. has been growing. Since 2009, China has replaced India and became first origin country for international students (Open Doors Report). During academic year 2014-2015, CISs represent over 30% international students in the U.S .

The Chinese international students share many characteristics: born after the one-child policy, they are more likely to be the only child of the family; they are used to metropolitan life; they have been “good students” at school; they come from at least a well-off family which has the willingness and economic capability to send them to abroad to study.

They are of the elites and they ought to be more open-minded, exclusive, liberal and to be more aware of equal rights. But are they? Or it’s just an easy assumption? What if the supposed liberal, empowered, cosmopolitan new generation is still restricted by conservative traditions and/or framing old believes of sex and gender in new ways?

From 2016 fall to 2017 summer, I conducted in-depth interview among 15 CISs. My point is to figure out how they make sense of their own perception of gender and sex. Moreover, I believe it is worth to learn about how they think about others, how the perceive the opposite gender.

Gender, sexuality and women

Gender and sexuality are political as they are both embedded in the systems of power which is designated to praise certain behaviors while degrading others (Rubin, 2011: 180). Morality and normality of sex and sexuality could be contextually defined based on historical, social and/or political need of the time.

“Gender is sexual.” (Mackinnon, 1989: 197) In her book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Mackinnon analyzes the power relation in sex and gender and the dilemma faced by gender equality.

Mackinnon heavily criticize the liberalism ideas of advocating for the neutrality of gender and promoting women to be equal as men. She points out that before we even talk about equality of gender, we shall recognize that gender is socially constructed and that it is constructed under hierarchical evaluation (ibid.). Then when it comes to gender equality, it is not really advocating the equality between genders but that women shall be equal to men. The invisible superiority of men is already established. Standards for supposed equality on genders are based on men, compared with men (ibid.). Differences and similarities of women to men are defined. In order to be equal, or more accurately, to be equal to men, women need to be/become men. Development on science facilitates this process of producing sameness and differences. Discrimination is no a discrimination when it is based on scientific facts, be it reproductive, pathological or else. Gender is routinely essentialized (Brown, 2006: 47).

Gender equality also calls for the liberty of the mind and body of women, consists part of the contemporary trend of to be liberal and tolerant, especially to tolerant differences, whether it is difference in ethnicity, race, or gender. Under the discourse of tolerance, the claim of being tolerant in fact bears the presumption that one is entitled with authority (ibid.). Thus, alleged self-claim of “liberal” or “tolerant” is yet another way to access to power. It is a disciplinary strategy allowing the liberal, the tolerant to define what is liberal and what is not, and to apply tolerance to others – the intolerant and/or the conservative, and to deny that of others.

Historical Context of China (20th century)

Discipline Women’s Body

Early 20th century has witnessed huge changes penetrated all aspects of China. It was also a time when China’s industrialization and modernization started to take form, both of which had affected woman’s life in public and domestic sphere. Among all discussion of what should be required for ideal “new women”, two issues came to the spotlight: foot binding and education of women. Faced with urgent desire to “save the nation” from colonialism and its own stagnation on development, foot-binding was considered the weakness of the nation, women’s lack of education was also believed one of the reasons accounting for China’s failure on modernity; both of which were criticized for being a sign of barbaric. Elite scholars of the times advocated for anti-foot binding and educating women. Liang Qichao, activist of constitutional reform of the late Qing government, in his article On the Education of Women, he wrote: women shall be educated and earn a living so that they would no longer be a burden of the household, or in other words, the husband; and they would be more capable to educate children (Liu,, 2013).

Liberation of women’s body and mind was not paying much attention to the agency of women themselves, rather it aimed to fulfill the nationalism or modernity goals while women were used as a tool to convey these inquires. It is undeniable that foot binding itself is a way to discipline, or even, punish woman’s body. However, the bounded women were never seen actively expressing their opinion on this matter, instead, they were represented by and supposed to be liberated by elite educators (Ko, 2005). Anti-foot binding programs were carried out by different parties and forced women, even those who had bounded feet for decades, to unbound their feet. At the same time, natural unbound feet became symbol of national self-determination (ibid).

Discipline on woman’s body, or use it as political means didn’t end after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. During Cultural Revolution, gender neutralized uniform and “revolutionary hairstyle” were popular among young people as a symbol of ideological correctness (Evans, 1997; Jeffreys and Yu, 2015). Discourse on sex, gender specific clothes were criticized as bourgeoise. The state never carried out clear regulation on sexuality of people, nevertheless, the interference of state happens where deviance of sexual practice emerges, i.e. premarital sex, especially that has resulted in the pregnancy. The state, or the administrative power would punish individual involved (Honig, 2003). Punishment takes the form of not merely deprive of job, promotion opportunity, but more importantly, publicly shame.

Afterwards when it comes to the era of reform and opening-up, in 1979, the one-child-per-couple policy was implemented, as the policy targeting the reproductive function of household, it is consequently gendered. Women were forced to abortion, accept contraceptive devices, etc. (Evans, 1997). In 2015 October, the government has published new policy on family plan and population control, namely, the two-child-per-couple policy. Given the status quo that the state does not regulate or compensate cooperation on gender equality matters, in near future, women could potentially be victim of this policy while having less choice on pregnancy and participation in work or public activities.

Gender Essentialism: the “Natural Woman”

The stereotypical women nowadays

Most of respondents recognize gender equality in an abstract conceptual level. Some of them further brought up the alleged rise of feminism in China and stated it’s a good sign in general. At the same time, they apply “science” to articulate their view of gender difference. They refer to the “biological”, “psychological”, or more commonly, “natural” difference as the reasons why women and men have or supposed to have different social roles.

One of the questions is designed to ask respondents opinion to equal maternity leave for both male and female employees. Most male respondents oppose this idea. When arguing about why all male respondents refer to the body changes of pregnant women, “it’s women who’re pregnant.” “it’s women who would give birth.” “but not men.”

In interview with Jack, he explains this as “women should have maternity leave, otherwise, it’s bad for all three parties – bad for the woman, for the baby in her, and bad for the company.” “Because,” he used his hands and arms to draw an imaginary round above his abdomen, then he pulled the chair straight towards the table but kept a distance from it as if there was a real swollen belly preventing him from getting closer, “you see? This is just inconvenient.”, in a second, he added, “she won’t be able to work as efficient.” Later during and after interview, Jack also brought up multiple times about “women are naturally more emotional while men are more rational” “otherwise, why you see so many successful male CEOs but so few female ones” “women are not born to handle this”.

Immediately after I asked the question, Gary showed his despise. He mocked and sneered at this idea while explaining --

Gary: Men to have maternity leave, this is unnecessary I think (sneer). It is not you to deliver anyway, if you say you need to take care of (your wife), there are other options: either family would take care or to hire a nanny or else. If you’re even not willing to pay this money, and demanding men should have maternity leave as well, I think it’s bullshit. If I’m the boss, I would never agree. Piss off! As men but want a maternity leave? Hahah.

Not only do men assist on gender essentialism, women do as well. Many female respondents have mentioned “evaluating” and/or “value” of women. Attitudes, acceptance, concerns of sex appear to play out differently on women than that of men.

To have a “good relationship/marriage” is one thing that many feel pressure on.

Bella says she is gradually persuading her parents on that “Marriage is not the only way to evaluate whether a woman is successful or not”. Sara talks about how girl should perform in the alleged marriage market --

Sara: (…) girls shall always keep a high EQ, and shall learn to provide emotional value, at the same time, (girls) shall also provide some economic value.

She continues to give detailed example of pre-marital cohabitation.

Sara: To be more specific, if two people would live together, as for rent, I think men should take full responsibility. (Researcher: Why is that?) Because women’s advantage. That is to say, I as a woman, in relationship, I have my value as a woman, as woman’s advantage. So I think, women initially have, like, naturally, gender advantage. (Researcher: “Advantage” means?) For example, we have the ability to reproduce. Or to be more frank, me with him, if I’m with this boy, I live with this boy, it would must be the boy to pay. The fact that I live with him, I have already provided my value. (…)

Hannah turns out to be slightly different compared to other interviewees in that she has been actively learning about feminism and gender equality. Yet, even her is bother with the idea of “value of women” –

Among all interviewees, Hannah is the only one who has been using tampon for years. She adopted tampon at the second year as an undergraduate student and she was questioned by her roommate.

Hannah: Yes, because I told them that I plan to try tampon; they then said what if you’re no longer a virgin if you use tampon. Then it’s, well this kind of, just make me feel ridiculous. Because, because whether one’s virgin should be judged by her sexual experience, this is one point. Second, I think whether a virgin or not shall not be, shall not be used to judge a woman’s value.

Other findings

Class Distinction: Open Us, Conservative Rural Them

Most interviewees consider themselves as city people and educated. The self-recognition of being open and progressive towards relationship and sex contributes to this effort. By contrast, they would rather avoid being described as traditional or conservative, both of which they connect to rural areas and people without privileged education.

© 2015 ВГО Центр "Розвиток демократії"